Choo-Choo Charlie Gets Served

Aug. 24, 2020

What would become of the "Good & Plenty" mascot in today's litigious times?

I came across another of those class-action lawsuit settlement notices recently – the kind that say, “If you purchased this thing in the last 10 years, you may be entitled to compensation.” The “compensation,” of course, usually turns out to be a coupon for 50 cents off, while the lawyers who brought the suit walk away with a big fee.

But I’m not here to talk about our legal system; I’m more interested in what this particular lawsuit targeted, and why. Some lawyers in California charged that Just Born Inc. “deceptively packaged” its two brands of tablet-sized candy, Hot Tamales and Mike and Ike, in “oversized packaging with nonfunctional empty space.”

As an American consumer of a certain age, my response to this is: nostalgia for Choo-Choo Charlie.

Charlie was the mascot of Good & Plenty, a candy brand that, after a few decades of bouncing around, now rests with the Hershey Co.. It’s licorice bits with a sugary coating, which is why I was never a fan: I agree with the late Michael O’Donoghue, who called licorice “the liver of candy.” But like every TV-addicted American kid, I was in thrall to their commercials, with their hypnotic theme: “Once upon a time there was an engineer...”

What my eight-year-old self didn’t know is that this was one of the most brilliant examples in the history of advertising of making a product’s deficiency into an asset.

Good & Plenty didn’t fill up its paperboard cartons in those days (or today, as far as I know) any more fully than Hot Tamales and Mike and Ike do now, which means there’s plenty of room for the pieces to rattle around in. That was the inspiration for Choo-Choo Charlie. If you shake the carton rhythmically, as Charlie clearly does in the commercial, the pieces rattling around inside sound a little like a train going by.

When it comes to turning a negative into a positive, this was a feat of advertising brilliance unrivaled until Miller made it macho to drink watered-down beer. But I shudder to think of what might become of Charlie at the hands of today’s class-action lawyers:

“Defendants misrepresented Mr. Charlie, named herein as a co-conspirator, as an engineer, when he clearly is not. Moreover, defendants engaged in deceptive practices designed to undermine suppliers of coal, diesel fuel and electrical power by stating that co-conspirator Charlie ‘used Good & Plenty candy to make his train run.’”